Another excursion into the progressive detachment of British from American jazz in the second half of the 1960s. This one heads further out into the realms of progressive big-band: lauding composition, fragmentation and complexity. If “The Sound Of Surprise” (W. Balliett) no longer surprises, time to kick the ball in a different direction.
Selection: Song Three (Nine Eight Blues, 7:52)
. . .
Graham Collier – bass; John Webb – drums; Phillip Lee – guitar; John Taylor – piano; Alan Skidmore, Tony Roberts – tenor saxophone; Bob Sydor – tenor saxophone, alto saxophone; Alan Wakeman – tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone; Derek Wadsworth – trombone; Harry Beckett – trumpet, flugelhorn. Engineer: David Voyde, session date/s and location unknown.
Not everyone got their name onto the front cover, but among those that did, Harry Beckett was elevated to “Featuring”. Beckett’s distinctive trumpet and flugelhorn often popped up in the late ’60s/early ’70s talent-packed ensembles of Mike Westbrook, Mike Gibbs, Chris McGregor and in this case Graham Collier , with the “unaccompanied Harry Beckett solo” almost a trademark of Collier’s work.
Graham Collier’s inventive progressive British jazz pulled the “big-band” of Ellington and Basie away from swing and pushed it into new chromatic and harmonic territory. Writer/musician Clifford Allen best describes Collier’s work:
“Composer Graham Collier (1937-2011) was one of the principal driving forces behind the evolution of British jazz during the late 1960s and on into the 1970s. Initially also a bassist and bandleader, his Graham Collier Music fostered the talents of many creative musicians. A composer of long-form suites that contain a unique level of openness, his rhythmically incisive and tonally broad music was created “on the bandstand,” even when in the studio. Collier was a composer, first and foremost, but his ideas of composition were collective and fluid, while remaining extremely rigorous”
In the late ’60s, Collier contracted for three records – Deep Dark Blue Centre (Deram, 1967) and Down Another Road (Fontana, 1969) and Songs for My Father (Fontana, 1970) – a contract which lapsed, in his own words, “when the companies realized they couldn’t sell this stuff”
The album title “Songs for My Father” seems to be a reference to the classic Blue Note Horace Silver album, with which there seems no obvious connection. Collier’s track titles are reduced to the austere Song 1, Song 2, Song 3 ,through to song 7, stripping them of the meaningful description and context. Instead they are subtitled with their musical form and time signature (waltz in four:four). Deliberate departure from the naming-conventions of popular music , but perhaps more in tune with what turned out to be unpopular music.
A US edition of Songs For My Father was released in 1974 to accompany a book on jazz arranging by Collier, “Compositional Devices, based on Songs For My Father” -Boston: Berklee (1974) Boston’s Berklee College of Music being Collier’s alma mater.
Collier’s big-band isn’t very big, usually between 8 and 12 instruments, a “small ensemble”, only one trombone, not three. The musicians are recognisably drawn from the jazz genre, play jazz instruments, but are used more as brushes applying musical paint on Collier’s compositional canvas, executing the composer’s vision. It is sometimes difficult to tell what is written and what is improvised, an ambiguity Collier revelled in.
Songs For My Father moves from the modal improvisational canvas of his two previous works, towards more structured composition. Here, Collier constructs a base layer of restless shifting tempos, edgy piano vamps, contrasting tonal horn layers using a wide palette of brass colours from trombone and trumpet through the saxophone family up to soprano, with freeform solo improvisation breaking out from the ensemble work. It has an unpredictable and satisfying complexity that commands active listening. Surprising even.
Music journalists like Clifford Allen have usefully documented the artist’s thinking by direct interview (just before Collier’s departure in 2011) One missing perspective is that of the musicians themselves, like Harry Beckett, how they experienced being on Collier’s bandstand. That would be interesting, but the opportunity has no doubt passed.
Of Collier’s later works, typically, a long-form Collier piece consist of a series of movements, which together form a narrative, usually a musical drama orchestrating the eternal struggle between order and chaos. Sounds like my every day.
The field of post-1960s structured improvisation jazz is small: Mingus probably initially, then Gil Evans, George Russell, and Graham Collier (arguably along with fellow Brits Mike Westbrook and Neil Ardley, if that’s not too Anglo-centric a list.) The music can be more difficult to access than straight bebop and its immediate successors, but rewarding to those who make the effort, you must dig deep, as precious things are often found well below the surface.
Vinyl: Fontana 639-006 stereo,
Black & silver Fontana label, 1970 first release, Phillips pressing.
Collecting late ’60s vintage British jazz is a thankless task. No-one seems to know anything about it, actual vintage vinyl copies are found exclusively in Britain and…you guessed it, Japan. It found no commercial success at the time, so remain painfully rare and dealers ensure, painfully expensive.
The musician’s are mostly now deceased, and their record companies and music publishers at a loss to exploit what they have, and then only thinking about streaming and download. I applaud the DJ/Jazz entrepreneurs like Gilles Petersen, Gerald Short and Fredrik Lavik for delivering historically rare music to audiophile standard on vinyl, and making it less rare. and more affordable.
This original was quite expensive but you either have it or you don’t, that’s how this collecting thing works. Doesn’t look like any “DJ re- edition” of Collier’s work has been produced, other than a CD from Spain and a BGO compilation, so I guess I have to go it alone.
UPDATE January 11, 2019
Harry The Jazz Paparazzi turns up gold again. Private photos previously unseen of Graham Collier and Harry Beckett at Jazz Festivals in the South of France and Switzerland (Antibes, 1969, Montreux 1971) and live at London’s 100 Club, Oxford Street (1971).
All our thanks to Harry, right man in the right place at the right time, and the right year!. (photos edited and retouchedby LJC) ©Harry M